Return to My Life

San Francisco 1968-1973

(Continued from Simon Fraser)

At a distance, San Francisco in late ‘68 still glowed from the “Summer of Love” festival the previous year.  But that glow was like the light that continues to travel in space after its source  burns out.  My friend in San Francisco — the noted Marxist economist James O’Connor — then lived on Shrader Street, a block from Golden Gate Park and around the corner from Haight Street, the epicenter of the West Coast hippie countercultural explosion.  In a short walk we could see the drugged-out flower children of yesteryear, the emaciated addicts, the teenage prostitutes, the filth and squalor — the hangover after the big party.

Me (left) passing out leaflets at SF State Strike Dec. 1968 (Frame from KQED news video)

But it wasn’t the counterculture I was after.  I’d had my taste of that in Vancouver.  The main attraction for me was the strike at San Francisco State College.  It had begun as a Vietnam war draft protest, but soon broadened.  Black, Latino, Asian and other minority student groups formed the Third World Liberation Front around a series of demands centering on establishment of a degree-granting ethnic studies program.  The duration, size and intensity of this struggle dwarfed the Simon Fraser upheaval.  In one phase of the struggle, hundreds of paramilitary riot police from San Francisco and neighboring cities occupied the campus, and each day featured a gradual buildup of student forces in the central square until a critical moment when the police charged with batons swinging and tried to break it up. I remember diving into the bushes with a baton swishing through the air a few inches behind my head.

I happened to be standing on 19th Avenue on the edge of campus on December 2, within a few feet of the movement sound truck — an ordinary pickup truck with two speakers mounted over the cab —  when newly appointed campus president S.I. Hayakawa climbed on the truck bed like a pirate boarding a ship and began ripping out the speaker wires.  I urged the driver, “Take off!  Take off!”  But the kid, who belonged to one of the Trotskyite organizations that talk and talk but never do anything, sat there like a deer in the headlights while Hayakawa was grandstanding up above for the media. If the truck had driven off, Hayakawa might have fallen off and broken his neck, and it would have been his own fault. Instead, Hayakawa’s trespass and vandalism on the sound truck catapulted him to political stardom.

By this time, I had developed a reputation as an independent academic Marxist.  A paper I had written in a sociology course on social stratification at Brandeis got published in New Left Review in London under the title Proletariat and Middle Class in Marx: Hegelian Choreography and the Capitalist Dialectic. The argument of the paper was somewhat unusual for a young author. I discounted the economic theorizing of the young Marx as idealist (“Hegelian choreography”). I found a much more complex and empirically grounded class analysis in Marx’s later economic writings.

The 1953 edition of the Grundrisse

Someone at New Left Review, observing that I cited from some of Marx’s writings in the German original, and that I was interested in Marx’s later work, had the idea of sending me a copy of Marx’s Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf) for review. A big blue-covered brick of 1,102 pages arrived in my mail. This contained the transcription of a set of seven handwritten notebooks from 1857-1858, halfway between Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy (1847) and the first volume of Capital (1867).  Since its publication in (then East) Berlin in 1953, this behemoth had received relatively little attention from Marx scholars, and had not been translated into English.  My review appeared in the March-April 1968 issue of New Left Review under the title The Unknown Marx.  The article generated enough interest to suggest that a translation might find a market.  The Review editors approached Penguin Books, and before the end of the year we struck a deal for me to translate the whole thing.  The publisher’s advance was my springboard out of Simon Fraser.  I calculated that if I lived frugally, the money would sustain me for two years.

In those days you could still live frugally in San Francisco.  After a week or so crashing at my friend’s apartment on Shrader Street I found an affordable room at the Hotel Stella upstairs from Le Boeuf restaurant on lower Washington Street, between Montgomery and Sansome. Generations of San Francisco immigrants had lived here. The rent was $9 a week.  My room resembled a monk’s cubicle. There was a small steam radiator. There was a built-in sink cabinet and closet opposite the door, a sagging single bed on the left, and a narrow window on an air shaft on the right. At night, the exhaust from the grill at LeBoeuf filled the air shaft, and for a while I became a vegetarian in reaction to this nightly siege of steak vapor.  I had a picture of Marx on one wall and a poster of a topless Janis Joplin on the other. The bathroom was down the hall. With a bit of carpentry I built a high loft platform for the mattress; the metal bed frame went into the basement. A second-hand desk fit underneath the platform and held my Underwood upright typewriter. I could work. My neighbor across the air shaft was an elderly Chinese man who cooked on a hot plate. There were other old Chinese and Filipino men who worked in Chinatown restaurants or factories. There were young men and women who worked in the nearby North Beach tourist joints. There was a Yale architecture school dropout who cruised the rooms trying to sell a baggy of seedy, weedy marijuana. There was a young couple who put their mattresses on the floor and shot heroin.  There were various Bohemian characters. One of them, Jerry Kamstra, later fictionalized the hotel in his novel Frisco Kid, but I don’t recall seeing him.  I mostly kept to myself. I was a misfit among the misfits. I ate at one or another of the cheap Chinese restaurants within a few blocks.

A middle-aged Chinese woman ran the hotel. One day, a few months into my residence, she asked me into her office and showed me a set of legal papers from the City. The City wanted to tear down the building.  Could I intervene somehow?  I saw no way.  A few months later, we all got notices to vacate.  I acted quickly and found a room in the Hotel Bell, just up the street at 37 Columbus Avenue.  The rent there was higher, $11 a week, but my room was larger. It had carpets and a bay window facing onto Washington Street. There was room for a double bed on the floor. I acquired a couple of hot plates and began cooking to save money.  My staples were frozen spinach and beef heart from the new Safeway nearby on lower Jackson Street. I continued working on the Grundrisse translation.  After some struggling and stumbling, I fell in with the rhythm of Marx’s voice and the translation went fluently.  I double-spaced my text and the stacks of finished sheets mounted on my desk.  I usually worked until about 2 a.m., then retired to the nearby Zim’s restaurant and sat at the counter drinking three or four cups of coffee. Then to bed.  Zim’s coffee wasn’t very strong, and it calmed me for sleeping. Meanwhile the whole block where the Hotel Stella had stood turned into a giant excavation, and then the Transamerica Pyramid arose there.

Cover of The Movement newspaper, March 1969

During the entire period of the translation, and afterward, I participated in the San Francisco State strike, the Chevron refinery strike picket line in Richmond, the People’s Park struggle in Berkeley, and any number of other ongoing demonstrations, of which there was no shortage.  I wrote up the SF State strike in the February ‘69 issue of The Movement, originally a Friends of SNCC support paper, edited by Joe Blum. That piece was republished in the March-April ‘69 issue of New Left Review.  I contributed pieces to Marvin Garson’s San Francisco Express-Times (later, Good Times), and to Leviathan, a journal started by Brad Wiley, a son of the Wiley publishing family. Elsa Knight Thompson, the Public Affairs director of KPFA radio in Berkeley, recruited Jim O’Connor, Terry Cannon, Frank Bardacke, Todd Gitlin, and me to co-host a program called The Surplus Prophets.  With many others, I offered my body as a human sandbag to protect the San Francisco office of the Black Panther Party from the police.

A young woman from Italy who came to visit me at the Bell found the setup perfectly ordinary.  Millions of students in Europe lived in similar situations, except that two or three would be sharing the room I had all to myself.  But to some of my American friends who had been raised in the suburbs, life in a cheap hotel with the bathroom down the hall was a different planet. One of my comrades, Brian D., coming to the Bell the first time, could not wrap his mind around the situation and fainted on the rug.

One of the big struggles of the day was the battle to preserve the International Hotel on Kearny Street, around the corner from the Bell.  I saw the busloads of demonstrators that the Reverend Jim Jones brought to support the elderly Filipino workers who had made the I-Hotel their home for decades. I took some turns on the picket line with them. Among the Asian community organizers  I met during this time was Wilma Chan.  She was already impressive then, and became even more so decades later as Majority Leader of the California legislature.  She is currently a member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.  But all the lawful organizing and picketing in those days could not save the hotel.  Sheriff Richard Hongisto, formerly a progressive, earned attaboys from the local power structure by smashing in the door of the hotel with a sledgehammer and leading a phalanx of Tac Squad officers to oust the old men by force. Developers quickly tore down the hotel, and to prevent the men from finding a new home in the community, the Bell Hotel soon came under the wrecking ball as well.  The demolitions were purely about ethnic cleansing.  For four decades afterward, the site of the Bell Hotel remained a hole in the ground; new construction is only underway now, as I write this in 2011.

Local politicians in those days made their careers by breaking the law in public — Hayakawa by trespassing on and vandalizing the sound truck, Hongisto by breaking and entering, each time with the lights on and the cameras rolling. Their crimes were always rewarded, never prosecuted. The murders of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk a few years later were partly a consequence of this official culture of glorifying politicians’ contempt for the law.

The origins of homelessness in San Francisco can be traced in large part to the City’s policy of giving a green light to developers to destroy the traditional SROs (Single Room Occupancy hotels like the Stella and the Bell). SROs were affordable housing for people making the minimum wage or less. The City handed over most of the neighborhood below North Beach and Chinatown to gentrification. Developers razed whole blocks of warehouses and factories between Battery Street and The Embarcadero.  A manicured park, Sydney Square, popped out of the ground, and luxury condos sprang up all around it.  One day these will serve as dormitories for scholarship students, on the Cuban model.

When the Bell closed, I found a room in an apartment with a mix of radical students and others at 925 Church Street, in Noe Valley, a short walk from Dolores Park. The rotating cast of characters included a recent Stanford graduate who was active in a power structure research project in Palo Alto, a woman who worked as a waitress, three SF State students, a young man who was slowly drinking himself into oblivion, and various others.  One day, Robin Blackburn, an editor of the New Left Review, appeared there and announced that the journal had awarded me the first annual Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize. He also put his hand on my thigh under the table.  I never received a certificate or money for this award.  I don’t know whether the omission was due to Blackburn’s discovery that I did not share Deutscher’s admiration for Leon Trotsky, or to my moving my thigh away.

Anti-Mandel in Italian

Anti-Mandel in German

In the January-February ’70 issue of New Left Review, under the editors’ title The Universal Contradiction, I published the opening salvo of an attack on the work of the leading Trotskyite economist of the day, Ernest Mandel. Mandel replied, I wrote a rejoinder, and the whole thing was published and translated into French, German, and Spanish under the title Anti-Mandel.  Shortly thereafter, in the April 1970 issue of Monthly Review, I published an article on Lenin’s theory of the labor aristocracy that took indirect aim at the same target.

In those early San Francisco days I was so consumed by the translation that I led an almost monastic life, much of the time.  I smoked cigarettes but confined my drinking and marijuana smoking mostly to weekend parties.  I surprised myself by turning down some sexual advances.  The young wife of a well-to-do academic friend, having just had a baby, declared that now she needed a lover, and came to my room at the Stella and began to take off her blouse.  I felt that somehow I was being made into a lifestyle accessory, and I turned off.  The girlfriend of a movement comrade, the day after a social evening where group conversation had turned to the Kama Sutra, came to my place and proposed that we try out some of the 99 positions of coitus together.  That felt too much like an athletic exercise.  But those perhaps Puritan impulses were the exception.  I got involved in a number of episodes typical of the relaxed mores of the period.   Many marriages and other relationships in those days were wide open.  In one instance I was in the downstairs bed with the wife, and the husband was in the upstairs bedroom with three young women having a noisy sex romp.  In the morning we all met for a giggling breakfast with the children, who seemed unruffled. I stayed away from the swinger parties; that felt too cold and impersonal.  I wanted to know and to like the people I had sex with.   On the other hand, having sex was a good way to get to know them and like them.   I had a number of one-night or one-month affairs with women, some single, some not.  That’s what people did in those days.  But not all the time.  One night I got stinking drunk and propositioned the girlfriend of an absent friend, who turned me down.  So did the waitress who shared the Church Street apartment with me.  People had a lot of sex, but they made choices.  I was lucky in that the only “bug” I caught was a case of the crabs, itchy but easily cured.

After translating Marx’s writing, which took about a year and a half, I still had to write my introduction.  This involved some intensive, time-consuming research.  While I was working on the introduction, my money ran out. Not a big problem. I worked a variety of odd jobs around the city.

I drove a Yellow Cab. I still remember some basic lessons from the driving course at the beginning of this job, such as: foot on the brake pedal on entering intersections, form a diamond pattern on a multi-lane road.  Unfortunately they didn’t have a lesson on backing up.  To accommodate a fare, I backed into their driveway, too far, and put a dent in the garage door.  The cab company paid for the repair and put me out its door. Cab driving is tedious work, and today if I take a cab I try to tip well, remembering my time behind that wheel.

I also had odd day jobs on the San Francisco longshore through Ship Scalers and Painters Local 1 of the ILWU (International Longshore Workers Union).  We took apart the contents of containers and parted them out to different destinations.  One memorable evening I boarded a container ship to find a big discussion underway among the black longshoremen. Some of them were defending the integrationist approach of Martin Luther King Jr., and others were advocating the Black Nationalism of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. I held still as a mouse and listened in awe. It was sharp, intense, well informed, emotional, mostly free of rhetorical bullshit, deeply rooted in personal experience, and conducted in a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity. I wish I had a movie of that hour as a model for how to conduct hot arguments over political line without splitting.

My steadiest job was sweeping up and driving deliveries for a two-man furniture shop named, creatively, The Wood Shop. Two gay men who knew their cabinetmaking turned out Parson’s tables, coffee tables, and bookcases for sale to unfinished furniture retailers. The shop sat in a storefront on Duboce Street under the freeway. Driving a white Econoline van, I soon got to know the location of every unfinished furniture store from San Rafael to San Jose.  At the end of the day I swept up the piles of sawdust in the shop.  The owners were hard workers.  Once or twice they invited me socially to their apartment in the Marina.  It was outfitted in antiques, stuffed animals, and porcelain knick-knacks. They never hit on me and always paid me on time. I also got to use the shop to build a few projects of my own.  Working part time, I made enough to pay my rent and groceries, and still had time to study and write.

The completed Grundrisse manuscript made a package more than two feet thick.  I sent it off to London in late 1971 or early 1972.  London took more than a year in typesetting, editing and printing.  The first edition came out in 1973 under the Pelican Marx Library imprint.  A Vintage edition for the US market followed.  The book is still in print.

My Grundrisse translation, Vintage ed. 2001

Publication of the Grundrisse occurred in faraway London and had no immediate impact on my life. But as the book trickled into the consciousness of people around me, an amusing cognitive dissonance arose.  Some people who read it, or pretended to, assumed that the translator and author of the Introduction must be a white-haired German refugee professor of the generation that fled in the 1930s, like Marcuse, Wolf, and Coser. They had a hard time matching their fantasy with the reality of a kid barely 30 who swept sawdust in a carpentry shop. Several times, on being introduced to someone from a non-movement setting who was interested in Marxism, I was asked whether I was the son of the Grundrisse translator.  Sometimes I would play along and pretend the translator was my uncle.

By contrast, most movement people interested in Marxism had little problem with my age or occupation.  The model of the scholar-worker fit in with the idea of the barefoot doctor, the worker/teacher, and other hybrids of otherwise strictly segregated roles. One of my friends, Joel from the San Francisco Newsreel movie collective, popped the aura that sometimes grew around the book by referring to it as the “Gundersnatch.”

Decades later, the Grundrisse translation still works surprises. A woman whom I was dating in Berkeley in 2005 went to visit academic friends of hers in Manhattan.  She mentioned my name.  Her hostess swept to her wall of books and pulled out the Grundrisse translation.  Way to impress a date! We later married.

This year (2011) my son Fred was best man at a wedding where the young couple are both Grundrisse readers, and he blew them away with a copy of the book containing my personal dedication to them, as a wedding present.  They didn’t suspect the translator was still alive.

As an immigrant to this country, I sometimes feel like a guest at a party.  You’re expected to bring a present, something nice from the Old Country.  The Grundrisse was my immigration present.

Like many other movement activists in the “New Left” during that time, I felt the urgency of better organization, and I was of course in the camp of “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought.”  In this pursuit, at some point in late ‘70 or early ‘71, I joined Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Union (RU). What pulled me into it wasn’t Bob Avakian. I knew Bob from the Movement newspaper and the Richmond refinery strike and other events as a fast talker who was a master at stringing Marxist-Leninist phrases and rhetorical formulas together. He was a highly intelligent young man, and well-intentioned, but his verbal glibness allowed him to play a leadership role without ever going deeply into the concrete facts of any particular situation.  He was one of the political entrepreneurs who capitalized on the prestige and popularity of Chairman Mao in those days by acting as if he owned the local franchise. He raised money by guilt-tripping kids from other affluent families (his dad was a local judge) into signing over their assets.

It was a woman, Davida E., who recruited me into the organization. Davida was irresistible.  She was educated at a top Ivy League school, drop-dead beautiful, and a hard-core no-nonsense Leninist.  She didn’t think much of Bob, either, but the RU promised to become an improvement over the transient formations of the day, and that was a good thing.

A handful of us started up the RU’s idea of a worker’s paper, called The Wildcat, and gave it away  plant gates in the early mornings.  We rented a small storefront in the cheapest area of the Mission District in San Francisco as a base for local organizing.  The landlord, no beginner, made us buy plate glass insurance to cover the storefront window.  It wasn’t long before the office received threats from right-wingers.  We brought our sleeping bags and rifles to guard the place at night.  One night I stood guard together with P., a retired mine worker who had lost the hearing in one ear due to a dynamite blast at work.  At an hour before midnight there was a huge “BANG” outside the office door.  I dove under the desk.  P just sat there, nonchalant, smiling. “Firecracker,” he said.  His experienced good ear knew the different types of blasts like a musician knows the sounds of the instruments.

In those days in the RU we all had rifles and practiced regularly at a range in Pacifica.  I carried my rifle in a guitar case.  It was a single-shot bolt action World War I relic from Italy that would make a modern soldier crack up with laughter, but in those days the appearance mattered more than the functionality.  One time as I returned to the Bell Hotel with my guitar case, two real musicians who also lived in the hotel approached me in a friendly way and asked to see my “axe.”  I had to be rude, and cultivated the pose of a recluse.

Davida was the best sharpshooter with the rifle, and also had a pair of pistols and knew how to use them. She was Jewish and talked sometimes about running arms to the Palestinians.  If it ever came to armed insurrection, which in those days seemed not so far off,  I wanted her by my side. We moved in together in a shared apartment on Guerrero Street in the Mission.  For Davida’s sake I put up with Bob, and even drafted a RU pamphlet on the economic crisis of the day, in which I supplied the analysis and Bob added the rhetoric. I also began a study project to investigate the new capitalism in the USSR, but before that got very far, something happened that caused me to leave the organization.

My mother had remarried and moved back to Germany in 1968, and at some time in 1970, I believe it was, I went for a visit.  After a week with her and her new husband in their home near Kiel in northern Germany, I connected with German SDS comrades in West Berlin and in Frankfurt.  There I met the radical filmmaker Claudia von Alemann, who was irresistible in her own way. It was lust at first sight, and we had ten or so steamy days together in Frankfurt and Paris. Sometime in early ‘72, Claudia came for a visit to San Francisco, and one thing led to another. Davida found us out, and according to Joe Blum, who shared the apartment with us, Davida had both pistols loaded and was prepared to blow me away and maybe Claudia in the bargain. Joe claims he saved my life by cooling her out. Davida was a communist but she did not believe in sharing her man, even for a weekend. She dumped me. Claudia fled back to Germany. I moved out to a furnished room on Mission Street and stopped attending RU meetings.  I did not see Claudia again for thirty years. Davida has managed the difficult feat of disappearing completely from the Google radar screen, but if anyone could do that, she could.

Me in San Francisco 1973

I found a new home shortly in a shared house at 4637 18th Street in the Castro district. The main tenants at the 18th Street place were Mickey and John Rowntree, two Canadian movement intellectuals who had published a number of articles that stirred lively discussions. The house had an overgrown garden that I helped clear.  We grew artichokes and lettuces and cooked and cleaned collectively. Another member of the house collective was Julia M., a woman from New Jersey who was new to the movement. She bore no resemblance to Davida, and I suppose that was what I needed at the time.  After some months in the house together, Julia and I hooked up and became an item, and looked for a place to live together. The ad for a rental house at 3296 Folsom Street on the corner of  Stoneman Street in Bernal Heights said “fixer-upper.”  A piece of City road equipment had rolled free and cut a gash in the siding on the Stoneman Street side.  We could have the place if I did the repair. It took me the better part of a week, but then it was done. We had the whole house with three bedrooms upstairs and a cavernous ground floor and garage for a ridiculously low rent. There was a small yard in back that had once been a stable. The soil was so fertile that if you were eating a tomato sandwich and accidentally dropped a seed, it would sprout almost before your eyes.

We had some reasonably happy months of domestic tranquility together on Folsom Street when I got a phone call from New York City. The interlude of peace was about to end.

(Continued in New York)

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